The 146th Open Championship sees the quest for the Claret Jug return to Royal Birkdale GC for the first time since 2008. That event saw Padraig Harrington survive a four day wind whipping to secure his second straight Open Championship with a winning total of three over par (+3), still the highest ‘to par’ winning total this century. Harrington joined a long list of high class winners at Royal Birkdale, with all previous winners featuring in the top 25 of the golf world rankings at the time of their victories; a fact that is, perhaps, indicative of the nature of a course which is considered amongst the most classic in the Open rotation.
Situated on England’s North West coast, Royal Birkdale is a traditional links test that challenges a player’s skill with every club in the bag, as well as their mental ability to respond to the inevitable bad breaks and unlucky bounces that are part and parcel of links golf. The par 70 track plays to 7156 yards and appears straight-forward from a playing perspective, with no tricked up tee-shots, relatively straight fairways with non-penal rough and medium sized, flat greens presenting opportunities to score for those players striking the ball well.
However, strategically positioned fairway bunkers, and traps in traditional greenside bail out areas will see errant shots appropriately punished, forcing players to concentrate on every shot. In addition to this, the natural defence of the coastal gusts (forecasted at between 15-20mph all week) should serve to drive down scoring so it is unlikely we’ll see a repeat of Henrik Stenson’s record breaking -20 winning score at Royal Troon last year.
As the only major played outside the US each year, and the only major played on links courses, the Open has historically favoured more experienced players who have enjoyed success on such courses previously. Indeed, of the past six Open Championships, four have been won by 40somethings (with Zach Johnson also winning aged 39), bucking a trend towards younger players triumphing in majors and big events elsewhere. There is also a trend which shows nine of the past 10 Open Championship winners having recorded a top 10 finish at the Open prior to their victory, so clearly prior success is a true indicator of future performance when it comes to this event.
Given the above, when it comes to finding the winner this week, I am primarily drilling down into previous links performance, with a specific focus on Open Championship history, whilst also incorporating the PGA Tour’s All Around statistic into my thinking. I’ll also be looking to the strokes gained off the tee statistic and scrambling rankings to provide a guide as to those who should go close.
With the outright market on Matchbook currently headed by Dustin Johnson at 17.0 and ten players at 31.0 or shorter, the 2017 Open is possibly the most wide open major championship betting heat in modern times. Having entered Masters Week in scorching form, DJ’s fall down the stairs now seems an apt metaphor for his subsequent form and he comes here having recorded consecutive missed cuts for the first time in over two seasons.
Similarly, Rory McIlroy arrives following back-to-back missed cuts for just the fourth time in his career as does Jason Day, who remains 6th in the world despite no wins and just two top 10 finishes in 2017. At the other end of the spectrum, both Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth enter fresh off the back of wins in their last starts and have very obvious claims, albeit they don’t fit the experienced trends highlighted earlier in this preview.
My Open Championship Fancies
Our headline pick this week is another who does not fit the age trend highlighted above, but does tick all other boxes – Hideki Matsuyama. The 25 year old world number 2 is vying for the ‘Best Player Yet To Win A Major’ title with the likes of Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm and this week presents an ideal opportunity to finally get over the line on the game’s biggest stage. The Japanese star is clearly in good nick, finishing as runner up at June’s US Open and warming up for this week with a gentle 14th place finish at the Irish Open held at the Portstewart links two weeks ago. He holds top spot in the PGA Tour’s all around category, whilst ranking 8th in strokes gained off the tee and 17th in scrambling. On top of this, he has previous at the Open, finishing 6th on debut in 2013 and 19th in 2015. A missed cut last year came during a run of form reading MC-MC-T42 so can largely be ignored in the context of his excellent recent performances. In a market surrounded by question marks, he rates a rock solid bet at a very fair price.
Next up is the 37 year old Australian, Adam Scott. After a heart breaking runner up finish in 2012 – when four clear with four to play – Scott has become super consistent on links tracks, recording a further three straight Open Championship top 10 finishes between 2013-15 before last year’s tie for 45th. He got the major monkey off his back capturing the Masters title in 2013, so much of the 2012 scar tissue will have gone but there is no doubt he’d like to capture this tournament to put the remaining ghosts to rest. He appears keen to put a missed cut at the US Open behind him, entering the week off the back of an appearance at the Scottish Open for the first time since 2009 (he finished 35th) and will be looking to revert back to the form that saw him record a 6th place finish at the Players Championship and a 10th place at the Fedex St Jude in early June. Currently sitting 10th in the all around ranking and 31st in strokes gained off the tee, the experienced world number 15 looks a great fit at an attractive price.
At the 2016 Open Championship Phil Mickelson produced what was statistically the 7th best major championship performance since 1860 (according to analysis done by the Economist website), yet failed to find himself in the winner’s circle due to Henrik Stenson’s otherworldly display (2nd best performance behind just Tiger Woods’ 2000 US Open win according to said report). Had the results been reversed, there’s a very decent chance he’d have been going off at least a 34.0 shot this week. Since that time, he’s tended to produce his best results in the game’s biggest events (top 10s in the two WGCs this season as an indicator) and having skipped the US Open in favour of attending his daughter’s graduation, there is no doubt he’ll be eager to prove he’s still a threat.
Although he split with Bones – his long term caddy – in late June, subsequent results seem positive with a top 10 at the Fedex St Jude backed up with a top 20 at the Greenbrier. Having not won on Tour since 2013, it’d be easy to write ‘Lefty’ off but he has still produced very consistent results that have him sat 26th in the world rankings and 21st in the all around category this season. Having recorded a win and two runner up finishes in the past six renewals of this tournament, Mickelson has clearly put early career links struggles behind him and this type of course now looks to hold his best chance of glory. At 50s+, he represents a cracking bet despite his advancing years.
My final selection, Francesco Molinari, is making his 10th Open Championship start, having recorded 5 straight made cuts with a best finish of 9th in 2013. Despite a consistent profile which has seen him climb inside the world’s top 20, the 34 year old Italian has yet to truly break through on the major stage but fits the profile of someone who could contend at very juicy odds, and a linksy Open Championship test would seem his most likely chance at winning a major. A past playoff loser at Castle Stewart Links at the Scottish Open, Molinari is an excellent ball striker who ranks 13th on the PGA Tour’s all around ranking this season, whilst sitting 38th in scrambling and 24th in strokes gained off the tee. A missed cut at the US Open on a course which was always unlikely to suit can be ignored but a spin at either the Irish or Scottish Opens would have been desirable in the build up. However, at a three figure price he appears to have been undersold by the market and should well outrun his odds.
- Hideki Matsuyama – 2 points win @ 23.0
- Adam Scott – 1 point win @ 31.0
- Phil Mickelson – 1 point win @ 46.0
- Francesco Molinari – 0.5 point win @ 101.0
Click here to browse more Golf markets on Matchbook, including tournament match-ups, top 10 finish, and top 5 finish.